Women’s Day Special: Office Mom – 7 Powerful Tips On How Not To Be One

Photo by Jo Szczepanska on Unsplash
WHO IS AN OFFICE MOM?

Office mom – if you are wondering what is your mom doing in the office, let me unpack this term for you. An office mom is someone who takes in additional, unpaid responsibilities like taking notes in meetings, refilling the coffee maker, organising farewell parties, organising lunches or mentoring new hires to show them how it’s done.

An office mom is also ready with emotional support if you had a heart break or are going through trying times in your life.

Doesn’t it sound great to have a mom figure to lean on and look up to at work? It sure does! But then what’s the problem?

There’s nothing wrong with it as long as it’s the office assistant who fetches coffee and is paid exactly for that.

This doesn’t mean that an admin assistant’s job is menial. It only means that he/she will get credit for the work done.

But it’s a problem when:

a) someone other than the assistant does these out of their precious work time that’s better used on actual work

b) people in the office expect someone by default – mostly a woman – to get these tasks done

DANGER SIGNS THAT YOU ARE AN OFFICE MOM

Before I go any further, I actually want to put down danger signs you should watch out for in case you’ve fallen into being the “office mom”. Do you “unofficially”:

– Write down notes in a meeting

– Email those notes to others later

– Pass around birthday cards for signatures

– Bake cakes for the new interns because it’s great to take care of them

– Keep the office supplies drawer in apple pie order

– Photo-copy hand out before a meeting

– Pass coffee around during meetings

– Take over someone’s work because he/she is sick

– Organise farewell parties or offered to do it one time and now you are stuck with it

– Keep pantry spic and span and it satisfies your OCD

– Change the coffee filter – it just takes a few seconds

AND people just take it for granted that you’ll do these tasks, even though you are NOT the office assistant.

I’m sure you get the drift by now. And even if you are denying it in your head, you know if you have fallen into this black hole. If you have, admit it and start finding a way out.

WHY IS BEING AN OFFICE MOM A PROBLEM?

Here are a few research backed reasons why:

Study after study has proved that being the office mom is a double whammy for women. It not just involves uncredited, unpaid work but also discredits women who refuse to do it.

NYU study found that when men stayed late to help the team prepare for a meeting, they were rated 14% more favourably than their female counterparts who did extra work.

Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant wrote in The New York Times article:

“When a woman declines to help a colleague, people like her less and her career suffers. But when a man says no, he faces no backlash.

“A man who doesn’t help is ‘busy’; a woman is ‘selfish.’”

In the same article, Sandberg and Grant address women who are put in charge of minutes of the meeting:

“[t]he person taking diligent notes in the meeting almost never makes the killer point”

And with so much of effort wasted on thankless tasks, it isn’t a surprise that it gets emotionally draining and futile as a means to move up in your career.

HOW NOT TO BE AN OFFICE MOM

Joan Williams, the author of What Works for Women at Work writes in The Washington Post :

“Some have figured out a smart or sassy comeback. A California lawyer told me she’s learned to smile sweetly and say, “I’m not sure you want someone with my hourly rate making coffee.” Another woman, who was asked to order lunch for a meeting, reminded her colleague that the receptionist was sitting right out front.

Another suggestion from the same author is to word your answer this way:

‘I’d love to serve on the paperclips committee. But that’s the perfect stretch assignment for David, our new junior hire, down the hall,’

If you are looking for specific ways to make not be an office mom, here are some moves that will work:

1. Don’t offer. To make coffee. To write minutes of the meeting. To get a birthday card signed. To change the coffee filter. To run down and get your boss lunch. These are some tasks that people are just waiting to off load on to someone. Don’t be ‘that’ person.

If you offered once out of the goodness of your heart, make sure you set a roaster system so that everyone in the team takes up these tasks. If that doesn’t happen, make sure you are not the at the receiving end of it.

2. Don’t fall for excuses. People might come to you for genuine problems – but repeatedly. The excuses could be – I am so helpless with tech, could you please help me get the right print outs for our monthly meets?

Teach them to fish. It might take some time and patience. But sit the person down and teach them to take prints. Or make presentations. Or change the coffee filter. Or order sandwiches for lunch – whatever be the task that people assume you’ll do.

3. Build in reciprocity: If you accept an undesirable task, make sure you end by saying – just this once but you’ll do it the next time. Or “I did it the last 2 times, who else hasn’t been in charge for coffee even once. I think you should have them do it”. Remember the rules of being assertive – there is no need to sound rude, just be assertive.

4. Learn to say no. This is a big tip and will help you through out your career. Although, refusing to do things asked of them puts women in a negative light, you are better off saying no to admin stuff that wont add any value to your appraisal.

Learn how to say no respectfully

Here are 9 ways to help you say no

5. Say no to the request, not the person. This is another big one. Make sure that you address the task being offered to you. Don’t make it personal. Explain why to make it even more specific.

“I am sorry I won’t be able to write minutes of the meeting since I’ll be busy organising the presentation for the client”

6. Leave your OCD at home. It’s not your job to fill the empty ice trays or tidy the office supplies drawer. If you really need apple pie order, use that energy at home. The more you clean, the more people will take it for granted that they can make a a mess.

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

If you really have to, keep your OCD limited to your desk. File your own papers. Have a separate set of stationery for yourself. Keep your own dust bin clean.

7. Work on your personal brand: If you are someone who jumps at every chance to help others, that’s your brand. People will take you for granted and off load their tasks on you. But if you build a strong, assertive brand and shine focus on your actual work – that’s the right kind of brand to build.

Don’t get me wrong! I am not saying that you should rudely decline any request for extra work. But there is a difference between being a good team player and being a pushover!

BONUS TIP!

I think this is more of a food for thought – how to end housework gender bias? Why are women just expected to take up admin work? And how do we ensure that this doesn’t happen?

I think one of the most important things one can do – especially if you are a woman in power – is to set a rotational system for such tasks. Even if you are a man, learn to disassociate tasks with gender.

Whoever takes the last cup of coffee makes the next fresh pot. Simple!

A woman doesn’t have to do that at the office because that’s what she does at home. If there is one woman in the team of 8 men, you can imagine where her time is going to be focussed!

Draw lots to decide who will write the minutes of the meeting next time. Or set it in alphabetical order of the names. This way whoever is next will know in advance leaving no room for excuses to off load.

The person who wants to share handouts in the meeting should be responsible for the photo copying – this task isn’t gendered either

Are you an “unwilling” office mom and would like to shake off the tag? Would you like to build a stronger personal brand so that people take you seriously for your work? I’d love to hear from you. Comment below or drop me a line on sumankher@sumankher.com.

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